Editor’s Note: Disruptors is a series that identifies the most groundbreaking moments in surf history.
Date: April, 1985
Location: Bells Beach, Australia
Moment: Tom Carroll announces his decision to boycott surfing events in apartheid-era South Africa
There is no better example in the history of Australian sport where a champion has been prepared to put principles so manifestly in front of his or her own interests.
-Former Australian Prime Minster Bob Hawke
Back in 1985, South Africa was a way behind the times. Despite the fact that the UN had denounced apartheid more than a decade earlier, the country was still in the throes of a caustic race battle. But that year, Tom Curren, Martin Potter, Cheyne Horan, and Tom Carroll made their stance known when they boycotted the only South African events on the tour at the time.
In the late ’40s, the National Party and its government–in sticking with the times, it was strictly a white-only affair–created a new legislation that effectively enforced one of the largest segregations in history. In short, it separated whites South Africans from non-white South Africans almost completely. I say non-white because it wasn’t just black South Africans that felt the cruel whip of apartheid–it was everyone that wasn’t white. In 1950, marriage between whites and any other race was illegal. Sex was, too. The Population Registration Act in tore apart families, taking husbands, wives, and their children in completely separate areas of the country. It wasn’t a fair divvy, though, not by a long shot. Over 80% of the country’s land was designated white-only, with the remaining 20% set aside for the apartheid classification system that included Bantu (blacks), Colored (mixed race), Asian (which included Pakistanis and Indians), and whites. Nearly all the non-white unions were dissolved, and if you weren’t white, you weren’t allowed in the government, meaning, of course, there was no official resistance.
That didn’t mean that there wasn’t resistance, especially in the later years. From both inside and outside of SA, there was a lengthy, strong opposition. It wasn’t until the early ’90s, along with Mandela’s help, that the laws forming the cornerstones of apartheid were repealed, and it wasn’t until 1994 when an entirely new constitution came into effect, that if officially ended.
Although surfing at the time wasn’t anywhere near as popular as is it today, the four surfers that took a stand made a real impact. At the Bells event in 1985, Tom Carroll kicked off, announcing to the world via an Australian news outlet that he would not compete in the South African events. For him, it was a “simple humanitarian stand.” He said that he would boycott events in South Africa until “all black surfers are allowed on all South African beaches.” The country had already been banned from the Olympics since the mid-’60s, and for the most part, competing there–no matter which sport–was looked down on by the UN. Soon after Carroll involved himself in global politics, the other three followed suit. Martin Potter’s boycott carried a lot of weight, as he was from South Africa. “Growing up,” he said, “the idea of blacks and whites being separated and living under different sets of laws was all I knew. It seemed quite natural. But traveling has opened my eyes.” Curren and Horan jumped on the bandwagon in the following weeks, and with that, surfing entered the foray of a long, heated battle.
But it wasn’t all good. A few years later, The ASP began issuing fines to surfers who chose not to compete in apartheid-era South Africa. Many surfers didn’t join in, and according to Matt Warshaw and the Encylopedia of Surfing, the prevailing argument was a separation of church and state type of thing. Putting sports and politics in the same bread basket wasn’t the popular option, and for someone making a living off surfing, it was a bit like biting the hand that fed them. Missing events put more than a few potholes in the road to a world title, and fines, on mid-’80s surfer budget, could be devastating. Shaun Tomson was one of the most vocal from his side of the fence. “What’s the next stand in surfing’s newly found political conscience?” Tomson said in a speech at the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame, just one day after Carroll’s announced at Bells. “Maybe we won’t go to the USA because we object to American involvement in Central America. Maybe we don’t go to France in objection to the Socialist government. Maybe we won’t go to England because we abhor Thatcher’s treatment of the IRA. Where will it end? If you don’t support South Africa, then voice your opinions, but support pro surfing. I don’t stand here tonight in defense of South Africa. I stand here as a surfer in defense of pro surfing.”
Wes Laine was among those that didn’t agree with the boycott–in fact, he seemingly missed the entire point of it. In an interview in 1990, according to EOS, when asked about the issue, he responded: “I love South Africa. I love going there so much there was no way that I wasn’t going to go. I’m not going to boycott. I don’t feel a boycott has any impact on South Africa’s politics, period.” Selfishly, he concluded, “I’m not going to jeopardize my livelihood or miss out on a good surf trip for anything.”
Despite years of surfer boycotts, events never stopped running in South Africa. By the time the country put a stop to the madness (Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk ended up splitting a Nobel Peace Prize for their roles in putting out the long-burning fire), the ASP had continued on for years, business as usual.
But amid all complicated politics, both of a country and a professional sport, Tom Curren, Martin Potter, Cheyne Horan, and Tom Carroll picked a side, stuck to their guns, and eventually, played a vital role in putting an end to a very, very dark patch on human history.
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